Oct
23

Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty

Irving Penn (1917 – 2009) known for is iconic fashion, portrait and still life images, ranks as one of the foremost photographers of the 20th century. Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is the first museum retrospective of Penn’s photographs in more than 20 years.

 

Irving Penn, Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation. Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Irving Penn, Bee, New York, 1995, printed 2001, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Promised Gift of The Irving Penn Foundation.
Copyright © The Irving Penn Foundation

Opening today and on view until March 20, 2016, Irving Penn: Beyond Beauty is the result of the enduring relationship between the artist, his foundation, and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. Born in 1917, he came of age just as photography was being accepted as an art form. A 1938 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York, Photography 1839-1937, cemented the photograph’s legitimacy as art.

Penn’s work crossed the boundaries between the artistic and commercial worlds with easy fluidity: from glamorous fashion spreads in glossy magazines, to images that capture the mundane and everyday. Penn was attuned to both the highs and lows of contemporary life like no other photographer. “The photographer, if good,” he is quoted as saying, “was both a journalist and technician.”

Penn had a journalist’s sense of story, a technician’s skill and a poet’s eye for beauty. Towards the end of his life Penn referred to photography as a synthesis of reality and imagination. Through his pioneering work with platinum printing, he gave even the most humble, often discarded objects a sense of beauty and grace. According to exhibition curator Merry Foresta, who was SAAM’s curator of photography from 1983 to 1999, “In the final analysis his work is not just about beauty, or about the potentials of photography as an art form, but a combination of the two that is indivisible and unique.” In his hands, a frayed glove or a cigarette butt is transformed into a work of art.

Beyond Beauty not only showcases Penn’s most iconic works, but thanks to a recent gift of 100 prints from the Irving Penn Foundation, visitors also will have the opportunity to become familiar with lesser known images created in the last decades of his life. These later photographs complement the 60 prints Penn himself gave to the museum in 1988 that encompassed his work from 1944 to 1986. The new photographs make their debut in this exhibition and add another layer to Penn’s aesthetic at the intersection of art, fashion and photography.


Posted: 23 October 2015
About the Author:

Alex di Giovanni has been editing The Torch since August 2006. Prior to joining the Smithsonian, she worked as a writer and editor for the National Geographic Society, Plexus Scientific, The Nature Conservancy, The National Foreign Language Center and St. Martin’s Press, among others. She has the best job in the world.